My Top Five favorite pieces of short horror fiction.

(I’m feeling list-y at the moment, so I might be sharing a few more of these.)

As I mentioned last post, it’s tough for me to whittle down a list of ‘best of’s from the wide world of my favorite things. Short stories from the horror genre being one of my very most faves ever, this list will surely seem incomplete to me soon. For now, these are my reread-twenty-times, always-have-a-copy-around most memorable shorts from the horror world.

1.  “The Reaper’s Image,” by Stephen King. The genius of this compact story, available in King’s notoriously unsettling collection, Skeleton Crew, is how much it achieves in how little space.  Its unusual plot about a mirror that shows you whether you’re marked for death, seduces then strangles the reader in its final shocker of an ending. Like a lot of the best King fiction and most superb horror fiction anywhere, you never see it coming.

2. “He,” by Joan Aiken. I discovered this charming little gem when I was just ten years old, in a story collection called, A Touch of Chill: Tales for Sleepless Nights. The piece is about an immigrant girl from Poland, who, while crossing the Atlantic, meets a traveler with a box that can tell the future.  Among other things.  When the companion dies, the girl uses the box to try to right this wrong, learning the difference between justice and vengeance.

3. “Dark They Were, And Golden-Eyed,” by Ray Bradbury. I know a lot of people would consider this piece more science-fiction than horror, considering it takes place on another planet, but I think it’s scary enough to belong in the horror category as well.  The story, which focuses on a group of human colonists exploring Martian terrain, can claim as its best feature its slowly increasing tension as the characters gradually succumb to the effects of the new planet’s DNA-altering terrain. As someone who has always feared being “changed” by pollution, radiation and other unwanted influences, this tale has a crippling effect on me.

4. “The Yellow Wallpaper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Though widely regarded as a feminist work, I’ve always been inclined to read this story strictly as horror first, mainly because of its clearly supernatural ending. “The Yellow Wallpaper” effects its magic by evoking true sympathy for its protagonist, who is then plunged into confusion, fear and sheer misery. The line that makes me feel the most for the doomed narrator is the one that typifies her isolation—her desperation for companionship has become so extreme she seems to be trying to find it in furniture: “Each one of those chairs is a strong friend.” And almost nothing in horror fiction will ever beat the story’s bizarre, unnerving climax. (I never look at flowered wallpaper without a mild sense of dread.)

5. “Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water,” by Kelly Link. (You knew there’d be a Kelly Link in here, right?) I think this story, which is perfect for any writer living by the grace of others, (part of the main character’s vulnerability is her living situation—dad’s garage) succeeds most through its absolute subtlety, which is masterfully maintained right up until the end. I really had no idea where the heck this piece was headed until the last paragraph, which was as startling as getting splashed in the face with the proverbial bucket of water (and no, that’s not a plot spoiler.)

Honorable Mentions: “The Dionaea House,” by Eric Hesserer. This 2004 story takes its inspiration from…nature.  And that’s all I can say without giving away the good stuff.  Bonus points for being available online free, (Google if you want to check it out) and for having embraced the epistolary form, adapted for the Internet age (hard to do, believe me, I’ve tried.)

“1408,” by Stephen King.  From 2002’s Everything’s Eventual, this might be my single favorite King short story of the 21st century, and one of his all time greatest.  A hotel room with a hideous past is visited by a skeptical non-fiction writer who wants to debunks its haunted legend.  The results are…intriguing. (Avoid the film, though, total snoozefest.)

“Who Goes Down This Dark Road?” by Joan Aiken. Aiken is really no slouch in the scare department. This is another one from A Touch of Chill, which has never failed to disappoint me despite many revisitations over the years. An elementary teacher in a village in England has a pupil who claims people talk to her through her hair. At first, the idea simply sounds strange to him, until he discusses the problem with her and becomes convinced it’s real, and neither mental illness nor psychic ability.

(If this sounds interesting to you, please scoop up a copy of A Touch of Chill and read the whole thing.  Then get in touch with the people at MarkedByTeachers.com and tell them to take down the badly plagiarized version they have sitting on their site under the title, “Enchanted Hair.”  Maybe they’ll listen to you; I’ve written them and asked them to take it down and they blew me off.)

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